Self-immolation and protest in Tibet amid intensified security in buildup to March 10 anniversary

  • A Tibetan woman in her late forties set herself on fire and died in a village in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) on the night of March 5, in the first self-immolation in Tibet this year. In a bold protest also in Ngaba on March 8, an 18-year old Kirti monastery monk held a solo demonstration, bearing a portrait of the Dalai Lama, and calling for him to be allowed to return home.
  • The protests in Ngaba took place in the context of a charged political environment in the tense buildup to March 10, the sensitive anniversary of Tibet’s national uprising in 1959 and an unprecedented wave of mostly peaceful protests that swept across the Tibetan plateau in 2008. Across Tibet, security was intensified; the authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region announced a strengthening of ‘counter-terrorist’ measures, while police in other areas were equipped with fire extinguishers in case of self-immolations.
  • Despite the heightened security, thousands of Tibetans gathered in different areas of Kham and Amdo last week to mark a Tibetan Buddhist festival. Both Tibetans and the Chinese authorities are aware that this year is the significant 80th birth year of the Dalai Lama; he will be 80 on July 6. According to tradition in the Tibetan area of Amdo, 80th birthday celebrations are particularly important.
  • Massed ranks of armed troops gathered in a show of force at the ancient and important Kumbum monastery, Qinghai, during a major prayer festival on March 5.


Self-immolation in Ngaba

Norshuk

An image of Norshuk, a mother in her forties who set fire to herself and died on March 5 (2015) in Ngaba.

A woman in her late forties by the name of Norchuk set fire to herself and died on the night of March 5, on the holy 15th day of the first Tibetan month (Choetrul Duchen), according to Kirti monastery monks in exile in Dharamsala, India. Norchuk was from Dowa village in the Trotsik area of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) county, Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan (in the Tibetan area of Amdo). Unusually, her body was not taken by the authorities but local people cremated her remains the next morning in order to pay their respects.

It is the 137th known case of self-immolation by a Tibetan in Tibet and China since 2009, the 37th in Ngaba county, and the first in 2015. Norchuk leaves her husband, a son and two daughters. A few years ago, according to the Kirti monks, she began practicing vegetarianism in dedication to the long life of the Dalai Lama. Security in the area has now been intensified.

Three days after Norchuk’s self-immolation, 18-year old Kirti monastery monk Gendun Phuntsok staged a solo protest on the main street in Ngaba town, Ngaba county, according to the same sources. This location, near Kirti monastery, is known as “Heroes” or “Martyrs” street because of the number of self-immolations and protests that have occurred here. He walked along the main street in Ngaba, carrying a portrait of the Dalai Lama wrapped in a yellow offering scarf, and shouting: “His Holiness the Dalai Lama must be allowed to return! Tibet must have freedom and equality!” The Kirti monks in exile said: “Before long the police came and took him away, and nothing more is known.”

Eighteen-year old Kirti monk Gendun Phuntsok carrying out a solo protest in Ngaba on March 8. The image shows him carrying a portrait of the Dalai Lama wrapped in a yellow blessing scarf. Gendun Phuntsok had been a monk at Kirti since an early age.

Eighteen-year old Kirti monk Gendun Phuntsok carrying out a solo protest in Ngaba on March 8. The image shows him carrying a portrait of the Dalai Lama wrapped in a yellow blessing scarf. Gendun Phuntsok had been a monk at Kirti since an early age.


Intensified militarization at time of religious festival, buildup to anniversary

The self-immolation and protest in Ngaba occurred in an environment of heightened security across Tibet in the buildup to the March 10 anniversary this week.

Video footage and stills from Tibet depict an intimidating military presence at one of the major Tibetan Buddhist festivals in Kumbum, Qinghai, on March 5, the last day of traditional celebration Tibetan New Year (Losar). The images show ranks of uniformed paramilitary police appearing to outnumber religious devotees at the festival, which is one of the most significant religious gatherings in Tibet, attracting thousands of pilgrims. Footage and images show troops in riot gear carrying guns jogging into the monastery and pilgrims passing through airport-style security scanners.

In one image, two small boys hold each other tightly, looking on as armed forces head towards the monastery. “I was so afraid that I forgot to pray”, one pilgrim admitted later on social media, while another said: “With this many soldiers at a prayer festival, are you working for harmony or war?” (Voice of America Tibetan Service, March 6 ).[1]

Since 2013, the Chinese authorities have tightened security at the annual festival at Kumbum, one of the great Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and this time the presence of troops appeared to dominate the scene more than previous years. The prayer festival, which includes display of butter sculptures, was started by Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, in 1409.

Pilgrims wait for police at the entrance to Kumbum.

Pilgrims wait for police at the entrance to Kumbum.


Pilgrims undeterred by military buildup demonstrate allegiance to Dalai Lama

As the Tibetan New Year period began in February, there was an intensified and intimidating security buildup in areas, including Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi), Serthar (Chinese: Seda) and Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) in Sichuan as well as in areas of Qinghai.

Even despite this demonstration of paramilitary ‘surge’ capability, Tibetans still gathered to pray and make offerings at the Monlam prayer ceremony in different areas at sites of religious and historical significance. The large gathering of pilgrims is likely to be an indicator of the intense devotion to the Dalai Lama that the Chinese authorities have sought to suppress, as well as a reflection of determination to express their Tibetan identity.

On March 4 (2015), Tibetans at Gomang monastery in Ngaba (in the Tibetan area of Amdo) marked the festival by displaying an image of the Dalai Lama, and a blue flag with an image of the earth and a dove, symbol of peace.[2] Tibetans at the ceremony called for the long life of the Dalai Lama and for Tibetans in Tibet and outside to be reunited, according to Tibetan sources and video footage that was circulated on social media.

At another celebration of Tibetan New Year last month, Tibetans in Ngaba offered khatags (white blessing scarves) to an image of the Dalai Lama at a shrine bearing the words ‘Welcome to the 80th birthday of His Holiness’.[3] According to tradition in the Tibetan area of Amdo, 80th birthday celebrations are particularly important.

Thousands of Tibetans converged at Labrang Tashikyil (Chinese: Xiahe) in Gansu (in the Tibetan area of Amdo) for a prayer festival on March 3; images circulated on social media show large crowds gathering near huge thangkas (religious paintings or banners). The ceremony was also marked in Luchu (Chinese: Luqu) in Kanlho (Gannan), Gansu, Nyitso monastery in Tawu, (Chinese: Dawu), Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi), Sichuan and other areas.

Despite an intense military presence in the Kirti monastery area in Ngaba county town, where the current wave of self-immolations in Tibet began, monks marked the festival by a large gathering and prayers.

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Deng Xiaogang’s comments followed an emphasis on security in the TAR with senior officials paying prominent visits to police checkpoints and border control posts in the buildup to both Tibetan New Year (which began on February 19) and the March anniversary. A few days before the Tibetan New Year, TAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo had emphasized the need for “urgent” security work in Tibetan areas, and “further study of the speeches of Xi Jinping”.[5] Deng Xiaogang, who heads the politics and law committee and ‘maintenance of stability’ operations in the TAR warned that officials who would be punished if they failed in their duty to ensure stability, a reference to prevention of any form of dissent.

The PRC-wide ‘anti-corruption’ drive has been politicized in Tibet with Tibetan Party officials being punished for ‘separatist’ activities linked to the Dalai Lama in both the Tibet Autonomous Region and Qinghai.[6] While this effectively acknowledges the failure to eradicate loyalty to the religious leader in exile, even among Party members, this development represents a further demarcation of the CCP-designated cultural battleground in the “war against secessionist sabotage”[7] and creates a political environment of deepening insecurity and danger for Tibetans.

Since last May, the expansive ‘counter-terrorism’ drive launched by the government following the killings in Xinjiang has increasingly targeted Tibetans, despite the absence of any violent insurgency in Tibet.[8] In January, the Chinese authorities even announced ‘rewards’ of thousands of dollars for information on ‘terrorism’ that is conflated with ‘separatism’ in state media reporting.[9] The Chinese authorities have demonstrated their combat capacity with large-scale military drills, intensified border security and training exercises for troops on responding to self-immolations and in monasteries.

Footnotes
[1] http://www.voatibetanenglish.com/content/article/2669092.html

[2] Display of the Tibetan ‘snow lion’ flag is banned in Tibet and being found in possession of such a flag can lead to torture and imprisonment. It is likely that Tibetans in Ngaba on this occasion sought to convey their feelings through a more neutral image.

[3] Images at: http://www.savetibet.org/images-from-tibet-on-the-first-day-of-losar/

[4] Chinese state media, March 6, 2015, http://www.chinatibetnews.com/zw/201503/t20150306_332247.html. In Beijing, some major Party conferences are also held in March.

[5] The meeting was on February 15, and featured in the Chinese state media on February 16 (2015), http://cpc.people.com.cn/n/2015/0216/c64102-26574511.html

[6] The Chinese state media publication The Global Times announced in a report on January 27 (2015) that several officials “who participated in the illegal underground ‘Tibetan Independence’ organization, provided intelligence to the Dalai Lama clique and assisted activities that would harm national security, were put under investigation in 2014”.

[7] The state media declared on February 10, 2012, that the situation in Tibet is so grave that officials must ready themselves for “a war against secessionist sabotage”. (Tibet Daily)

[8] ICT report, October 15, 2014, http://www.savetibet.org/new-aggressive-counter-terrorism-campaign-expands-from-xinjiang-to-tibet-with-increased-militarization-of-the-plateau/

[9] Xinhua report, http://news.xinhuanet.com/legal/2015-01/31/c_1114204219.htm?url_type=39&object_type=webpage&pos=1

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